Getting Back to Sleep: How to Deal with Insomnia

by Wellness Editor – MH

When people think of sleep, two thoughts usually spring to mind; we need eight hours per night, and most of us fall far short of that goal. While this lack of sleep can often be blamed on hectic and work-filled schedules, many cases involve a more serious condition known as insomnia. Fortunately, those with insomnia are not without treatment options. If insomnia is properly addressed, sleep-deprived individuals can finally get some badly needed shuteye during the overnight hours.

Keeping People Up at Night

Far from being a rare sleeping disorder, insomnia affects large numbers of Americans on a regular basis. Additionally, certain biological and personal factors can increase vulnerability to sleeping problems. The National Sleep Foundation provides the following statistics regarding insomnia’s widespread reach:

  • More than one-in-five Americans (22 percent) suffer with insomnia on a nightly or near-nightly basis. When people with occasional insomnia are added to the equation, this figure spikes to a stunning 48 percent.
  • Insomnia tends to strike women at a greater rate. Compared with men, women are 1.3 times more likely to report experiencing symptoms of insomnia.
  • Evidence indicates that the risk of insomnia increases with age. Seniors (those aged 65 and older) are 50 percent more likely to develop this condition than those in younger age brackets.
  • Marital turmoil or the death of a spouse can significantly disrupt human sleeping patterns. Insomnia tends to more common among those who are divorced, widowed or separated.

Making insomnia even more of a threat is that it can be triggered by other conditions. For example, insomnia can occur as a result of asthma, cancer, diabetes, depression and various pains. In addition, some people struggle with insomnia due to the side effects of certain medications, or by consuming excessive amounts of caffeine and/or alcohol. Insomnia that is caused by other diseases or conditions is referred to as secondary insomnia (conversely, insomnia that is not related to any preexisting health issues is called primary insomnia).

Acute Vs. Chronic Insomnia

As with other conditions, insomnia has both a chronic and acute form. Not surprisingly, acute insomnia afflicts the patient for only relatively short and intermittent periods of time, lasting anywhere from a single night to several consecutive weeks. People with chronic insomnia, in contrast, are bothered by the condition at least three nights per week for a minimum of one month.

Acute and chronic insomnia are often caused by different factors. Bouts of acute insomnia are often preceded by a significant amount of stress.  Problems at work, divorce, moving to a new home or deaths of loved ones can all provoke short-term insomnia. Other common triggers include environmental stimuli (such as noise and lights), irregular sleeping patterns and medicinal side effects. The most common culprits behind chronic insomnia include depression, long-term problems with stress and nighttime pains and discomfort.

Both chronic and acute insomnia tend to cause the same kinds of symptoms. Patients generally tend to feel sluggish and lethargic during the day, and are noticeably irritable and short-tempered with others. Insomnia can also greatly hinder a person’s ability to concentrate and recall certain information.

Getting Back to Sleep

There is no “one size fits all” treatment method for insomnia; instead, the patient’s treatment method depends on the severity of his or her symptoms. Some relatively simple lifestyle adjustments might be enough effectively treat milder cases of insomnia. Some helpful guidelines are listed below:

  • Settle on a practical sleeping schedule and stick to it. Though it may be a bit of challenge, try hitting the hay at the same time each night. By the same token, try to wake up at a sensible time each morning.
  • Refrain from chugging caffeine-fueled drinks in the late afternoon or evening; ingesting caffeine during these hours can easily make it hard to fall asleep. In limited amounts, caffeine is generally safe to consume.
  • Avoid large meals before bed.  Larger meals near bedtime can cause you to toss and turn at night.
  • Develop a routine before getting to bed. Some activities that might help in this regard include taking a shower or bath, reading a book or listening to music.

Various behavioral therapies can also be used to help patients sleep better at night. Some of these therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), light therapy and certain relaxation techniques. CBT attempts to address insomnia with positive thinking, replacing worries about sleep with more pleasant thoughts. In addition, patients undergoing CBT are often told to restrict the amount of time they spend in bed during the day.

Light therapy seeks to adjust the patient’s internal clock through exposure to light. In keeping with this goal, the patient may told to use a medical grade light box. Relaxation therapies often focus on controlling breathing, mood, muscle tension and heart rate.

If the doctor deems it necessary, the patient may also be prescribed sleeping medications to treat insomnia. Such medicines include zolpidem (Ambien), ramelteon (Rozerem), eszopiclone (Lunesta) or zaleplon (Sonata). Patients are usually instructed to take these drugs for a just a few weeks. In terms of over-the-counter options, some people may benefit from taking antihistamines. However, it is recommended that insomnia patients consult with their doctor before taking any non-prescription medications.

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